With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Postcard From Detroit

The archival collections housed at the Walter P. Reuther Library’s Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs are vast, a treasure trove for anyone studying the histories of working people and the trade union movement in the United States, though there are also ample collections that point to international worker and trade union connections. As someone whose research centers the experiences of Black workers, trade unionists, and community activists in the United States and South Africa, a visit to the Reuther Library was essential.

The Reuther Library is located on Wayne State University’s campus, which is a conveniently short drive from downtown Detroit. Wayne State itself is an urban campus, embedded within the fabric of the city.

The Reuther reading room is located on the third floor of the library, and offers striking views of the campus. I opted for a desk adjacent to the windows, where I could watch the afternoon summer rain showers while parsing through papers.

Thanks to the library’s organized archivists, research was seamless. I spent the majority of my visit absorbed in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) collection, focusing on the organization’s connections to the anti-apartheid movement, emerging South African trade unions, and Black South African workers. I also referenced labor union activist Owen Bieber’s papers and a few United Automobile Workers (UAW) collections.

After a couple days of research, it became apparent that South African-U.S. trade union connections were more salient than I had initially imagined. Correspondence between CBTU President William Lucy and the Secretary of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Cyril Ramaphosa, highlighted the shared solidarity between African American trade unionists and their Black South African comrades. In an August 7, 1985 letter of support to Ramaphosa and striking mine workers, Lucy proclaimed that it was “imperative that trade unionists, especially Black trade unionists, stand together in unity.”1 In response to Lucy’s call for solidarity, the CBTU wrote letters of support to Ramaphosa and the South African mine workers striking for higher wages. Ramaphosa, with roots in the South African trade union movement, is currently the President of the Republic of South Africa.

While engrossed in the CBTU collections, I stumbled upon the name of a South African whom I had interviewed for my oral history project. A prominent leader of South African community organizations, Thozamile Botha, flew to the United States to speak at a 1985 Congressional Black Caucus-hosted labor seminar.2 Black South Africans like Botha traveled to the United States with some frequency, often to educate and share their plight with the U.S. labor movement. Similarly, African American trade unionists traveled to South Africa, and in general espoused frequent contact with South African trade union movement leaders.

Read entire article at Contingent